language policy

you know, i wonder if this post might get me into trouble. i don’t think it will. after all, its education.

been reading my nation-building notes. basically its a module examining how the Singaporean state has strove to establish a national identity and itself as a nation… not just a state. and this is achieved through many different ways. education being one of the tools.

and you know, singapore’s english + mother tongue thing has become such a part of singaporean society. since the 1990s, which means my whole life i’ve lived with that educational environment. mother tongue is meant to help in transmission of cultural values and such.

however!!!!! i fail to see how speaking a language aids in providing cultural ballast, or cementing any sort of ethnic identity within an individual. if the chinese community is meant to be more unified by speaking chinese, and the same goes for the indian and malay communities, won’t all of us be unified in certain cultural values because of the fact that we all speak english? now i know that yes, english does bind us together, but decadent western values are not what we seek to foster yada yada…

the point is that simply learning and speaking a language does not inculcate cultural values. perhaps if the textbooks do endorse certain messages (which they do i guess) then yes there is some effectiveness to it. but that message is as ‘soft’ as anything else: it’s like choosing what kind of literature texts to use, and what examples and case studies to examine in social studies and history. it doesn’t become anything more special because it is taught in chinese. or other mother tongues. i cannot comment on malay or tamil or any other languages because i am effectively monolingual, despite what the education system has designed for (yes, i escaped with a D7 in higher mother tongue and refused the cajoling of the school to take my A level Chinese).

oh, sidetrack. the great gatsby movie that is coming out? i have had my doubts on the value of a hollywood blockbuster-ish kind of imposition on a text like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby… but i just watched the trailer and on first impression, it does seem to do the text justice. the soundtrack is eerily appropriate.

anyway, back to language policy. what good does it do? i am honestly not sure. if i’m not wrong, the general feeling of students is that mother tongue is just another topic – there is no real subscription to the idea of mother tongue carrying any cultural weight. yes, there is an intellectual acknowledgement (perhaps), but there is no real embracing of that fact. heck, if i were a mother tongue teacher, i don’t think i would be. is this the point where we cry out and criticize the system as inherently flawed? after all, you don’t use classical chinese idioms and such to communicate on a daily basis. at least i don’t. yes i’m limited by an extremely poor grasp of the language, but from what i know of language studies, day to day communication does not require that great of a grasp of the classics. in a sense. referential qualities exist to be sure, but knowing obscure stuff doesn’t really help in anything except showing off. when you talk to people on the street or in a shop or in a hawker center or wherever… what you speak is certainly singlish. it is broken and flawed and coloured by a wonderfully unique mishmash of culture, and accented by a million different voices, but everything is still mutually intelligible and you don’t require classroom mother tongue to understand it. heck, i picked up malay words and phrases from the void deck, not any mother tongue classes.

despite all this, i guess there IS still a time and place for mother tongue. i just don’t see how it applies to me now. granted i am not a good example of the intended result of the system… my Chinese is poor. but would it be different even if my Chinese were A1 standard? i don’t think so. doesn’t look like it, especially from what i can see. your grades in mother tongue and cultural ballast and being singaporean: grades in mother tongue don’t have any bearing on that. especially if mother tongue is deliberately and artificially inserted into the curriculum for a rather organic purpose, for the lack of a better term. it’s like plugging a nuclear reactor into a shark and expecting it to become a nuclear powered hunter… it doesn’t work that way. you need some bio-mechanical apparatus for interfacing. and i guess that’s what’s lacking? not that i have a solution to the problem – i don’t pretend to. but there’s a need for some degree (or a greater degree) of interfacing between intention of Higher Up, and results on the ground. there needs to be common understanding. which, of course, is not something easily achieved. and that’s why its worth working towards in the end

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